Letting the Past BE.
Mindfulness teaches us to live in the present, but we certainly can't ignore the past. It shapes who we are. But we can learn to look at the past without judgement, and release its power to control our present.
For someone as young as I am, yes I think 43 is young, I really feel like I have had double the time in experiences. Yet, I have a terrible memory and can’t remember most of my childhood or even young adulthood. The memories are there, I know, because if someone brings something up, I can recall the experience. But if you asked me to tell you what it was like being 9 years old, I’d have trouble remembering. At first I thought I must be repressing memories due to trauma that I couldn’t recall, but now I think it is something else entirely. I have learned that my brain is just very efficient about what it hangs onto, probably because of meditation and mindfulness.
Our brains are incredible computers, but they are not infinite in storage capacity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. It is when the brain is rewired to function in some way that differs from how it previously functioned. Brain development doesn’t stop when you become an adult, as was previously thought. Your brain can actually “restructure” itself when necessary, in order to adapt to various changes you experience throughout life. The caveat is that, in order to do this, it has to dust off the cobwebs and replace old neural connections that aren’t used. (Sidebar…seriously, how amazing is the brain?!?)
This process is called synaptic pruning - just like pruning a tree to promote more growth, the brain is preparing itself for new connections, new experiences, and new memories that are more relevant to your present life and whatever developmental stage you happen to be in.
So, if I can use this as reasoning, it begins to make sense for me. We moved a LOT when I was a kid, a new city or state every few years, mostly due to my parent’s work opportunities. By the time I graduated high school, I had been to 13 different schools in just 12 years of education. I was always the new kid, always trying to figure out how to fit in. My brain was in CHANGE OVERLOAD, perpetually pruning, restructuring and trying to keep up with the constant newness - on top of being in various stages of cognitive development. None of this, by the way, is anything I now perceive as negative. It just is what it is.
Why am I bringing any of this to your attention, and what does it have to do with mindfulness? Well, as much as mindfulness is all about being in the present, we can’t ignore that we are shaped by our past. I actually have a deep appreciation for my changes as a child - it kept me learning at a speed most kids weren’t capable of, and it forced me to become outgoing. Our experiences and how we have handled change, trauma, the positive and the negative, failure, success - all of these contribute to the people we are today.
In mindfulness, the entire point is to practice staying present. To try not dwell on the past, to try not worry about the future - but to be fully aware and IN the present moment. Yet, it is important to understand the reasons we hold on to the past. It can be different for everyone, but some common reasons are unresolved emotions and/or trauma, discontent with the present, shame, and a lack of confidence. All of these can cause us to overthink things and become stuck in negative thoughts of past failures.
When we don’t fully deal with an incident, and unpack the emotions involved, it is difficult for the ego to let go. Our ego will remember exactly how something made us feel, and it will also remember if we needed “protection” from those emotions should the same type of incident reoccur. I have an “irrational” fear response to birds. I have no idea why. It started when I was very young, and I still have a physical and emotional response when a bird is near. I tense up and my stomach starts tying knots. Now, I am not a skittish person at all. I love animals! Even snakes! But my ego is somehow protecting me from something that isn’t actually real in the present moment. I even know I shouldn’t be afraid - yet my fight or flight response says differently. This is some kind of unresolved issue I have yet to overcome. This isn’t a particularly harmful thing I am holding onto, but I am still, subconsciously, holding onto it.
On a more serious note, I was in a relationship that was extremely unhealthy in my late teens. It had a profound effect on my life, as it was my first serious relationship and I was quite young and impressionable at the time. I did not have the capability or knowledge at the time to work through what happened and move forward in a healthy way. This left me with a lot of emotional baggage that I carried with me for a very long time. My marriage was affected, in the early days, specifically because I had issues around trust. I couldn’t see that I was creating problems by hanging on to my past. I was making assumptions based on past behaviors that I witnessed that didn’t have a whole lot to do with my current experience. It took some soul searching, some serious faith in the process, and brutal honesty with myself to see that my past was NOT my present. I can honestly say that I have let those events go, and I do credit mindfulness with my emotional and mental transformation.
So how do we acknowledge the past but not let it control us in the right here and now? Meditation and reflection are my biggest go-to’s if I am feeling like I am ruminating about my past. One of the biggest problems with hanging onto the past is that we usually have a pretty distorted picture of what it is that we can’t let go. And our ego is judging the event, the people involved, even our own behavior and reactions. But if we can mindfully look at the past, perhaps through meditation, we might see a different picture. We can stop letting the ego run the show and just observe the past, without judgement. We have no control over the past anymore, nothing about it will ever change, so why do we need to judge it? When we have no judgement about it, emotions don’t come on as strong, and can eventually fade altogether. But it definitely takes practice.
The key is to keep moving forward. Identify what is helping you in your present moment. Even our positive experiences of the past are keeping us out of the present moment, which is the only true moment we have. We are in a constant state of change, every moment. If you hold onto the past, you are not leaving room for the new wonderful things happening right now.
It’s one thing to learn from our experiences, and to reminisce about old times. It’s a completely different thing when we let the past - positive or negative - dominate our minds and inhibit growth. This leads to anxiety and anxiety leads to fear and doubt. We can’t live fully in the here and now if we are ruminating over the past.
I wouldn’t call my childhood or my young adult years traumatic at all. Of course I have had traumatic things happen, and I can remember the rough things, but they don’t elicit any emotion. They are just there. I can look back at even the negative things and no longer feel resentment or anger, and look at the positive and just feel appreciation. It’s giving me space to experience the RIGHT NOW.
Eckhart Tolle said “All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”